Saturday, February 23, 2013

New Blog with More Travel Posts

Hi folks,

Thanks for sticking with me the past few years as I've been using Blogger. My blogging needs have changed, though, and I've moved on to a new platform.

This will be my last post for this blog address.

If you like, you can keep up with my recent (and future) travels, plus the regular posts about journalism and education, at

I do hope to see you over at my new blogging home.

Good luck, and take care.


Friday, February 8, 2013

Planning an Adventure is an Adventure

My colleague and I are taking a Travel Writing class to Asia in less than four months.

We've long since passed the early significant hurdles in this process: planning a two-week itinerary, creating a responsible budget, getting approval from my academic department and the Study Abroad Office, and then finding at least 10 students willing to trade some cash for a much more valuable item -- a travel experience in Seoul and Tokyo.

With that out of the way, we've been free to plan the details. I'm having a terrific time with this.

I still dig printed books, so I like to purchase updated travel guides. Because this is a travel writing class, we're currently discussing that format using a cool book I found from Lonely Planet. I hadn't intended for this to be a Lonely Planet trifecta, but it is what it is. (Hey, Korea buffs -- notice the Youngpoong Bookstore bookmark?)

We're also using the website to take care of our lodging. This gives us some significant advantages. For starters, we want to live in Seoul and Tokyo while we're there. I don't feel as if I'm living somewhere when I'm staying in a hotel. Secondly, the apartments we're renting have wonderful amenities. We really wanted wifi, a kitchen, a clothes washer, and television (for cultural studies, of course). We got all of them.

Here's the kicker: I've seen study abroad budgets that list hotel costs for an individual student in the vicinity of $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the length and location of the trip. Our students will be living in great apartments for two weeks, in two of the world's major cities, for less than $500 apiece.

As for the airfare, we ended up needing some help on that one. I'm sad to say that, in my experience, dealing directly with an airline for group travel is a bad way to go. "Sure, we'll charge you twice the ticket amount that is currently listed on any given travel website. Just sign the contract." No thanks.

STA Travel has stepped in with praiseworthy results. The representative assigned to our trip found group tickets from Texas to Seoul, then Tokyo to Texas on an American carrier. Then she hooked us up with an Asian carrier for the trip from Seoul to Tokyo. The airfare is a bit higher than what we were hoping for in the budget, but the difference is less than $200. Combine that with the convenience our super friendly and responsive travel agent is providing for us, and I consider it a pretty good deal.

Now I have a little more time to study my 한글 lessons.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Applauding as Your Rights are Taken

A clerk in Putnam County, New York, has placed himself smack in the center of a somewhat controversial episode that has set journalism, press freedom and privacy at odds. It also has a nice "rule of law" angle to it.

Take a look at this report from Poynter, because it's serving as the informational basis for my post.

The clerk disagrees with a newspaper's efforts to publish gun ownership records from Putnam County. The newspaper has already done this in a couple of other places, and a whole lot of people are angry about it. So, the clerk is refusing to hand over Putnam County's public records. His decision is getting praise from all sorts of folks, including a New York state senator who now says he'll introduce legislation to restrict public access to that kind of record.

These actions, and reactions, are dangerous, ill-considered, and flat out stupid.

Let's briefly tackle the journalism issue first. I agree with Poynter's Al Tompkins: there really wasn't any journalistic justification for the newspaper to publish information about local gun owners. Just because the record is public doesn't make it newsworthy. It's just not a story.

My concern lies with one individual's decision to determine that he won't follow the law and provide records that by right -- not privilege -- are open to everyone, regardless of the person's profession or employer. This clerk is in the wrong, and it's even worse that an elected official is agreeing with this nonsense.

Those who are supporting him would probably feel differently if he was refusing to release inspection records of the nursing home facility in which a family member just died under suspicious circumstances.

I have actual, genuine trouble understanding people who are essentially yelling "take away my rights to access this information!" That's what they're doing, of course. They're not simply trying to take away a newspaper's right to access these records. They are willfully giving up their own rights -- and trying to revoke yours and mine -- to this information.

Let a little bit of my hard-earned journalistic skepticism (some would say cynicism) reveal itself on this issue. The government will -- emphasis on will -- find ways to restrict your access to what should be public information, either through legislation, ignorance or extralegal means. What the Putnam County clerk is doing is illegal, regardless of what his conscience is telling him.

Do not applaud someone who is violating the public's right to access information, and certainly do not applaud any political demagogue who hopes to take advantage of such ignorance. These people do not serve a greater public good. They serve themselves at the community's expense.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Don't Board the News Media Scapegoat Train

What happened in Newtown, Connecticut is horrific. It is an event that has bruised our national psyche. Like thousands across this country and this world, I'm sad, disgusted and angry about it. What happened there is unconscionable.

As journalists, how do you possibly report on something that is unspeakable?

It's an exceedingly difficult story to cover. In the minutes and hours after the event, some of the news reporting wasn't accurate. In the effort to talk to someone -- anyone -- to find out what was happening, sometimes children were placed in front of television cameras and microphones. National and international media converged upon, and have overwhelmed, a small community that never, ever wanted to be at the center of the global media spotlight.

There are legitimate things to criticize in the news coverage of this massacre. There are always legitimate things to criticize in journalism. Journalists should be used to criticism. We hold people accountable, and in turn, we need to be held accountable, too. We put ourselves and our work before the public every day, and sometimes multiple times a day, and there's no shortage of people who are ready to smack it down for any number of reasons.

That's already happening with the coverage coming out of Newtown.

I'm seeing some of the same old tired, trite criticisms of the news media. Editorial cartoons depicting national news organizations as vultures circling overhead. Opinion columns about how "the media" should be so ashamed for what they're doing. These types of columns rarely offer constructive criticism; instead, the writers have decided that they don't like something they've seen or heard, they rant about how terrible "the media" is, and then they paint all news media with the same broad brush.

That's scapegoating, and it is so, so easy to do.

First of all, you're not there (most likely). I'm not either, but I've covered events that thrust my community into the international spotlight. The Birmingham abortion clinic bombing of 1998 and the deadly, devastating F5 tornado of April 8, 1998 were just two that happened relatively close together. National and international media converged on my community in both of these cases, and I was right in the middle of all of it.

The day after that horrible tornado tore through Jefferson County, Alabama, I was walking through wastelands that had been neighborhoods just the day before. I saw a family sitting on the concrete foundation of their home -- that's all that was left -- and started walking through their yard toward them. It was pretty obvious who I was and what I was doing. The headphones, microphone and recorder gave me away.

I wondered two things as I walked for what seemed to be an exceedingly long time: will they talk to me, or will they tell me to go to hell?

I introduced myself, told them where I worked (I stressed that I was a local reporter, for sure) and I told them how terribly sorry I was for what had happened to them. I also told them that people across the country were concerned about what had happened here, I was hoping to help these other people understand, and I asked if they would be willing to share their experiences with me.

They did.

That interview stands out in my memory even today because of how I felt as I approached those people who had literally lost everything they had. I was nervous. I didn't want to bother them. I didn't want to be accused of being a vulture journalist. I didn't want to upset them any more than they already were.

But my job -- our job, as journalists -- is to help explain what is happening as best as we can while being as sensitive as we can when the circumstances are particularly difficult. We must talk with people to accomplish this.

So please don't board the News Media Scapegoat Train. There are always a few members of any profession who don't adhere to the highest standards of professionalism and ethics. Dismiss these idiots and focus instead on the journalists who are doing admirable work, those who are telling the story of Newtown with sensitivity, thoroughness, and respect.

These journalists have been handed a tough assignment, and they don't deserve a bunch of armchair critics who have no idea how difficult it is to cover such a tragic story.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Dad was Right ... Again

I think I was in middle school when my dad dropped the following profound bomb on me.

"Not everything you read in the paper is true," he said.

What in the world? (I had not yet developed the coarser vocabulary of a journalist.)

I was not convinced. It's a newspaper. It's news. It's supposed to be true. News is the truth. If it happened, it's in the newspaper, and it happened the way the newspaper said it happened. Why would Dad even think that?

This is just one of a flood of memories I have of Dad that I've been pondering recently. He passed away last month after a difficult struggle with Parkinson's Disease. That's a topic that I won't get into here, but I bring it up because I just read something that triggered this specific memory.

Poynter reported last week that a recent Gallup poll showed only 24% of those surveyed gave journalists a "high" or "very high" rating for honesty and ethics.

That hits close to home. As someone who has devoted my entire professional and academic life to journalism, and as someone who has very strong opinions about how journalists should conduct themselves, both professionally and personally, I hate to be confronted with this reality. The public just doesn't really trust us.

My own father was sometimes the target of shoddy journalism. As a public school official, he was in the news quite often. Sometimes the local newspaper would allow controversial -- even untrue -- statements to be published and wouldn't even contact my dad and ask for his point of view. Dad expected as much as a public figure, but Mom couldn't stand it.

I remember being at the table one day ranting about getting a newspaper with no B section. "What kind of crappy newspaper gets delivered to the house and the entire B section isn't in it?!? This is ridiculous!"

But Mom had intercepted the newspaper before I got to it. She told me years later -- seriously, years -- that she had taken the B section out of the paper that morning because it contained an unflattering story about Dad, and she didn't want us kids to read it.

And this brings me back to the present. Dad was right ... again. A newspaper doesn't always contain the truth. Sometimes there are nuances to stories that get overlooked. The report might be essentially true, but it's not the whole truth. Sometimes journalists make mistakes. I've done that, too, and there's no getting around it. We all screw up on occasion.

And then there are those who deliberately lie, make up facts, or steal other people's work. These acts are clear violations of widely accepted ethical standards (see SPJ's Code of Ethics as a great example). Unfortunately, the high profile cases get a lot of attention. But the ones that happen on the local level, even if only a small number of people know about them, are just as damaging. The public is unwilling to see past the proverbial bad apples. As far as they're concerned, most of us are finks.

Journalism is service to the community. It is a promise to the public. Journalists are servants, whether our community is on the local, national or international level, and we are supposed to be purveyors of the truth.

I hold that sacred, and I despise those who don't respect that relationship. Even a few are a few too many, as evidenced by our low trust ratings. I'm happy to encourage them to find another line of work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Travel Writing Through Asia

The Spring 2013 semester is marking the start of a really cool adventure for me and Kim Bruce, my colleague in West Texas A&M's Department of Communication. We're taking a travel writing class to Asia! Check out our poster -- we've been cartooned.

We're preparing to take a group of students to Seoul and Tokyo for a two-week study abroad experience in June. The class will focus on travel writing. Here's how we're planning to prep for it.

During the spring semester, we'll be teaching a one credit hour course on Thursday evenings. The class will put a heavy emphasis on how to write travel journalism, and we'll spend a good bit of time introducing our students to the Korean and Japanese cultures. Eventually, students will have to turn in a "Pre-departure Story Planning Document" that includes the types of stories they hope to write, what story elements they plan to include, and justification as to why these particular stories would be interesting to a wider audience.

Even though English is common in both cities (particularly in Seoul), Kim and I thought it would be fun to also teach the students a little bit of Korean Hangul and Japanese Hiragana. You know, just enough to be able to read the subway signs and learn a few polite expressions.

At the time of this writing, I only know of one student planning to go who has already been to Asia. Everyone else is going to be an Asia newbie. And, most of the students will be new to international travel. So, for one of our graded assignments, students will turn in what we're calling the "Packing Plan for Two Weeks in Asia" assignment. Kim and I both have spent extended periods abroad, so we know the value of packing lightly. We will be "encouraging" our students to pack what they really need in carry-ons and leave everything else at home. Right -- easier said than done.

Kim and I are also incorporating Twitter into our class assignments. Our Mass Communication students need to be familiar with Twitter -- there's no way around that. They're going to be required, as part of their grade, to tweet news and information related to South Korea or Japan. It's a way to help them get familiar both with Twitter's functionality and with what's going on in our study abroad destinations.

That's basically the plan for the spring semester. Kim and I are now starting to work with airlines and finding places for all of us to stay. It'll be a terrific adventure.

By the way, for anyone reading this who has taken students on a study abroad excursion, I'm always interested in learning about your successes and "non-successes." Feel free to tweet me at @ButlerCain to share your insight.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"It Ain't Worth &%#*!"

That's how my grandfather describes the new three-day-a-week publication schedule for The Huntsville (Ala.) Times.

He's 85 years old and has earned the privilege to use some colorful language on occasion. I have griped on this blog and in person about how much I hate Advance Publications' decision to cut the Times, and several of the company's other newspapers, to three-day-a-week schedules.

Hold on -- I'll get to the digital argument shortly. But I still strongly believe these decisions are based on financial reasons, not on what's best for the communities these newspapers serve.

Case in point: my grandfather complained to me today that acquaintances have died and were buried before he and my grandmother even found out the people are dead. My grandparents -- and I'm sure this is true of yours, too -- scoured the newspaper obituaries every day, looking to see if someone they know has passed on. Under the new publication schedule, if someone dies on a Saturday, my grandparents likely won't find out until the Wednesday paper arrives at their doorstep.

That's not good service to the community.

My grandfather has been a loyal Times reader for his entire life. He was born into a family that subscribed to The Huntsville Times. He carried on that tradition when he became an adult. He and his family have been subscribers for more than eight decades.

Here's today's sad fact. He's decided that the Times' new publication schedule is no longer providing him with the service he desires.

My grandfather is going to let his current subscription expire.

He's not going to renew it.

My grandparents are not a statistic. They are real people who live real lives. They read (past tense) the newspaper every day. It has been important to them.

Advance Publications claims that digital is the new frontier, more and more people are going there, and newspapers have to meet their readers there. I'll be the first among many to say that yes, this is true.

But we're being fed a false choice, and I'm urging you not to swallow it. The journalism industry doesn't have to abandon print to incorporate digital. In effect, by abandoning print (like Newsweek is going to do), organizations are abandoning millions of people who have no access to digitized information.

Admittedly, I feel like I'm yelling at a hurricane. But when journalism organizations start taking access to information away from the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, and those with less education, journalism has truly become a tool of the elites.

My grandparents aren't on the Internet. They no longer have a daily newspaper. Heads up, local television news. You're about to become the only source of information for at least two people in Madison County, Alabama.

I suspect that will be true for many others, as well.